Russian President Vladimir Putin’s obsession with expanding the Russian Federation and reinstating the powers of the Soviet Union is nothing new. But despite previously invading Georgia and annexing Crimea, the current war in Ukraine is different. The international community is imposing new and harsh sanctions, the war is being documented — in both serious and silly formats — on social media platforms like TikTok, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a unique and fierce leader.
In many ways, it’s a war like never before.
A new cold war?
In some ways this conflict is a continuation of the Cold War. Russia is attempting to turn back the clock by reinstating the Soviet Union and restoring Russia as the US’s greatest military rival.
It’s the first time in decades tanks have rolled across European borders. It’s the first time in history NATO has activated its 40,000 troops, getting the Response Force ready to defend other NATO countries (Ukraine is not a member). And it’s the first time the European Union has directly financed the purchase and delivery of weapons in what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has called a “watershed moment”.
It’s also one of the few times the US Treasury has designated a leader as a “head of state”. In an “exceedingly rare” move, Putin has been labelled as the head of state of the Russian Federation, putting him in the same company as Kim Jong-un, Alexander Lukashenko, and Bashar al-Assad and allowing individual sanctions to be imposed to target his assets.
As in previous conflicts including the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and the Myanmar insurgency, social media audiences are being exposed to war developments in real-time. But something feels different. Ukrainian soldiers are documenting their efforts to music and TikTok trends even as they sacrifice their lives.
There are soldiers doing the moonwalk, dancing to popular remixes and filming their weaponry. Ukrainians have also uploaded videos of their interactions with Russian soldiers, from a woman telling soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so their death will bring beauty, to a man chatting with soldiers whose tank ran out of petrol. Another video revealed how some Russian soldiers don’t fully agree with — or understand — why they are fighting.
Russian soldiers are also jumping on dating app Tinder, giving away their strategic positions.
Zelenskyy too has made the most of social media, inspiring European leaders to impose harsher sanctions on Russia and calling for Ukrainians to take up arms and fight for their country.
A unique leader
Zelenskyy has emerged as a fierce leader since the war erupted, staying in Kyiv even as Russia launched airstrikes. He rebuffed evacuation offers from the US by saying “I need ammunition, not a ride”.
Zelenskyy is also unique in his background. A law student turned actor-comedian turned president, he was an unlikely candidate in the 2019 Ukrainian elections. He grew up speaking Russian in Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine and is ethnically Jewish, although he, like many Jewish families in the Soviet Union, isn’t religious, he has claimed.
The Warsaw-based Jan Karski Society honoured Zelenskyy last week with the Jan Karski Eagle Award for his “heroic defence of Ukraine and the moral values of Western civilisation”, with a member of the awards committee likening Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to the Holocaust.
As The Atlantic’s Gal Beckerman wrote: “If Zelenskyy has now become synonymous with the blue-and-yellow flag of his country, it might signal an unexpected outcome of this conflict that has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out.”